THE BLOG

The EU Has Had Its Challenges When It Comes to Ethics, But It Is Serious About Addressing Them

17/06/2014 17:12 BST | Updated 17/08/2014 10:59 BST

The notion that the European Parliament is a gravy train riddled with waste and financial scandal is simple to pedal, especially when you need to score easy political points back home. However those that often pedal it, fail to acknowledge the reforms that are quietly taking place.

There's no denying the European Parliament has had its challenges when it comes to ethics. Who could forget the cash for amendments scandal of 2011? But that such challenges exist shouldn't be taken to mean the Parliament hasn't shown it's serious about tackling them and we have seen some important changes take place over the last two years.

In 2012, the European Parliament introduced its first real code of conduct for members. The new rules clarify the definition of gifts received by those acting in an official capacity and demand MEPs declare any income received outside parliamentary salaries as well as declare all events attended at third party expense.

And there are penalties for those who break the rules, ranging from a warning to a suspension of Parliamentary activities. The worst for any politician, though, is probably that the penalties are published on the web.

Other steps too have been taken to address conflicts of interest and safeguard against an often-criticized 'revolving door' culture within the EU. The European Parliament this year voted for a resolution urging the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to introduce a two-year cooling off period for scientists with ties to the agriculture and food industries from working at the agency. And in November 2012 the European Parliament's Economic and Monetary Policy (ECON) Committee voted for a two year "cooling-off period" to prevent members of the ECB Supervisory Board from taking up paid work in the banking sector upon leaving office.

Yet despite such positive steps there is admittedly far more that needs to be done to bolster the twin pillars of transparency and accountability.

First, there must be even more in the way of clear rules to ensure the responsible committee can extend its mandate and fully and comprehensively investigate potential malpractice. Today's "advisory committee on the conduct of members", of which I am currently the chair, is just the first step in the right direction.

The EU must also continue to encourage the reporting of malpractice. It already has some of the strictest whistle blowing rules in the world adopted in 2004 with legislative force. And the Commission adopted more recent guidelines on whistle blowing that elaborate on these rules. These are welcome developments, but we must build on them to further strengthen a culture of encouraging and supporting whistle-blowers.

Excessive bureaucracy too can lead to the kind of waste that EU citizens rightly feel aggrieved about. Taxpayer's money ought to be spent on growing the EU's economy instead of an already huge bureaucracy that can fosters the kind of administrative discretion that makes waste and malpractice easier to come by.

Reform for one of the world's largest administrative structures, will be an on-going process and one that will no doubt encounter many teething problems.

It was, for instance, after it emerged that 12% of the submitted declarations of interest from MEPs contained no information other than MEP's name and date of submission that the Advisory Committee decided to recommend monitoring procedures to analyse empty declarations. Similar types of recourse will no doubt have to take effect across a wider range of provisions for us to see longer lasting change.

Finally, the topic of European Parliamentary ethics touches on a broader issue - reform and transparency of the EU as a whole. Results from this year's European elections highlight the urgent need for the EU to stop navel gazing, take structural reform seriously and re-connect with its citizens. Voter apathy and the dramatic rise in the number of anti-EU parties stem from a distinct feeling by citizens that EU politicians are too distant and only add unnecessary EU regulations.

Not promoting economic growth, burdening businesses with red tape and struggling to speak with a unified voice add to this lack of disengagement and voter apathy.

However with a new President for the European Commission to be announced, and a new European Parliament President to be elected by MEPs in July, the time for reform is now.

Yes it's time for a new President to be elected in a transparent and fair process, instead of deals being done in secret. Yes it's time for a President to introduce reforms to reduce red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy, rather than stifle our citizens with over regulation. And yes it's time for a President to have a vision for the 21st century, to embrace the digital single market and help boost economic growth.

I am sure you also believe: "Yes, it's time".